Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Miniature, Epic

... What have we to do
With Kaikobad the Great, or Kaikkosru?
Let Zal and Rustum bluster as they will,
Or Hatim call to supper--heed not you.

Anyone who reads at all around medieval Persian culture or history, and who pays any attention to art credits, must get to recognise the title of the Shahnameh after a little while. In my case, it was my adolescent interest in military history that acted as the key; those flagrantly gorgeous contemporary painted depictions of the arms and armour of noble Asiatic cavalrymen usually had that title attached. It then came back from time to time, and I came to learn what the book signified; it's the Persian national epic poem, the "Book of Kings", composed in the 11th century but based on older myths. Think of a combination of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Matter of Britain and the legends of Hercules, and you'll get the idea. Except that, as this one was immensely popular in much of the Islamic world for several centuries, it frequently appeared in exquisitely illuminated forms.

So when the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge runs an exhibition entitled Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, what they're actually offering is a couple of rooms full of classic Persian and Indian miniature painting (plus a few ceramics and such for variety). It's not a grand or sweeping theme - it's quite tightly focused, really - but it's well worth an hour or two, even at the level of casual and under-informed browsing and contemplation. And, to be fair, the museum's labeling does a fair job of making up for any visitor ignorance.

Not that one gets an especially full feeling for the full plot of the Shahnameh, mind. That's not the point of the exercise, and it seems that certain specific scenes from this lengthy epic were especially favoured by artists (or maybe by the curators of this exhibition). The great hero Rustam, his very superior horse Rakhsh, and his tragic duel with his unrecognised son Sorab, recur frequently, as does the scene of the night of Sorab's conception. (A princess in a castle where Rustam has taken shelter comes to visit him in the night, seeking to bear a hero's son.) Yeah, all the classic stuff - violence, tragedy, sex - and especially the bits where those themes emerge turned up to 11. I'm not sure where the recurrent scene of one hero fishing another out of a deep dark pit fits in with this pattern, though maybe the Freudians could have some fun with it.

The feel is thus quite reminiscent of the Arthurian cycle, at least at that level, but the art styles throughout this exhibition are distinctly eastern, with reams of beautiful calligraphy on pages dusted with gold and embellished with richly coloured inks. This does lead to problems for the show, mind; all these centuries-old books obviously need very careful treatment, so the room lighting is kept respectfully low, so maybe it's hard to catch the full impact of the artistry. The illustrated books and postcards on sale in the gift shop may actually provide a better clue as to the sheer technicolor pizazz of this artistic tradition. Still, there's a lot of rarefied boasting points to be had from seeing all those originals gathered together.


Lucy said...

Check out that sumptuous volume of Malcom Arnold you got as a school prize if you still have it, (which I tried to nick since I read it far more than you but then you nicked it back...) for the Victorian Orientalist take on 'Sohrab and Rustum'. Nice stuff if you like that kind of thing, as one does. Comes up in 'The Kite Runner' too. I'd like to see this exhibition.

Phil Masters said...

Ooh yes, 26 pages of Victorian take. But then, the Victorians loved them their Persian classical quatrains. (See quote at top of original post.)

The exhibition is on until January, so if you're over here any time for the rest of this year...